Over the last few years, L&D leaders have had to adapt their departments—and for many, that’s included a reduction in headcount. So, at a time when you need to do more with less, how can you continue to deliver the same great results?
Luckily, expert advice is close at hand. In this podcast recap (check out the full episode here), I talk to Gabe Gloege, Senior Director of Learning & Organizational Development at ETS, about his journey to lean and problem-driven L&D.
With a backdrop of cuts in the ETS L&D team, Gabe needed to re-evaluate how to reach his departmental goals. By proactively addressing problems the organization experienced, he accomplished what many L&D teams do with bigger teams and more.
Read on to hear how Gabe transitioned to lean L&D by focusing on evergreen problems.
When Gabe joined ETS in 2019, he and the team spent six or seven months working hard to transform themselves into real client-focused performance consultants.
“We'd dig into the performance needs,” he explains. “We would talk with people who were facing real challenges. It became a high touch, client-centric performance-oriented approach—and it was great.”
The new approach worked well until March 2020 when COVID-19 hit. ETS had to pivot quickly to adapt to the new reality, but not without some difficult decisions.
“The learning team of 10 people went to a team of one person,” he says. “Now, it's me and my colleague Michelle LaGuerre. When it happened, we looked at each other and said, ‘How the heck are we going to do this? There's 2,500 people here and there's two of us’. So, I had to dig into my bag of lean tactics that I had developed over years.”
Gabe and Michelle transitioned from being client-focused to being problem-focused, emphasizing digital marketing and delivery. “At a high level,” he explains, “we identified a few key problems that were important across the organization, and we tried to leverage technology and other lean tricks to scale the way that we deliver those solutions.”
Need more expert insights? Find out how WhatsApp, Klaviyo, Amazon, and other market leaders are scaling their organizations with the right L&D strategy.
Having taught lean L&D for a few years at a global education company, Gabe adopted many principles from the product management mindset.
Facing the challenge of a reduced team, Gabe and Michelle acknowledged that there were things they could no longer do such as extensive client discovery on every inbound learning request.
“We were good at discovery, but we just couldn't do it at scale anymore. We couldn't do custom content creation for every single client, especially if they had a small audience and we knew we couldn't address every single learning need that was out there. So, we honed in on a few principles,” Gabe says.
Concretely, Gabe’s principles in his bag of lean tactics were:
So, how do a problem-driven focus and digital marketing delivery compare and contrast to the norm that most of us are used to in L&D?
Related: Incorporating Product Management Principles Into Your L&D Approach: A 5-Step Framework by Anne-Marie Burbidge
As Gabe says, his and Michelle’s journey of a problem-driven focus and digital marketing delivery approach has differed from the L&D norm.
“The default state for many L&D departments has been glorified vendor management or content creators whereby the client has a problem, they describe it in the form of a solution, and you just sort of say, yes, and go off and do it,” he says.
“And I think a much better approach lies in performance consulting whereby you dig deeper into the real performance needs and uncover evergreen problems.”
I think a much better approach lies in performance consulting whereby you dig deeper into the real performance needs and uncover evergreen problems.
First, a problem-driven focus starts with what Gabe calls evergreen problems: friction gaps that cut across the entire organization and are not likely to go away anytime soon.
“There are structural needs and some classic L&D problems that fall under that like manager development or onboarding. You're always going to be hiring people. You're always going to have new managers,” he says.
Gabe looked for a number of those evergreen problems and researched them to understand the jobs to be done, describe the use cases, and learn the language of the customer.
Next, Gabe explains that you should firstly think of yourself as a business and build business-to-consumer, or B2C, offering and secondly be product management orientated.
“Then you market those offerings to the organization,” he says, “and this is something I think is vastly different from what traditional L&D departments typically do. In my experience, L&D is often client-focused. You have the head of a department or division that feels they understand a particular need within their part of the business.”
However, as Gabe notes, building B2C offerings is more about how you can draw people out of the woodwork–all the people who have the greatest pain around the evergreen problem.
This is the stage where digital marketing and delivery become important in finding ways to attract and screen the right people for the right offerings.
“Having the right technology is crucial to successfully getting your offering out there, ensuring the right people get the right training at the right time, and constantly gathering feedback ascross multiple channels so you can iterate on those offerings,” says Gabe.
Now that you know the three steps for lean and problem-driven L&D, Gabe explains that it is time to implement a customer funnel to catch the needs of people when they have them.
Related: L&D Plus Technology: How Getting Back to Basics Helps Publicis Groupe Connect Learners Around the World
As Gabe explains, using a customer funnel creates drag nets to catch people who have learning needs when they arise.
In a commercial setting, a customer funnel allows marketing and sales teams to better understand buying intent—it’s a signal of whether customers are considering your offer/product.
Gabe uses the same approach at ETS. “It occurred to me that time is the real currency of learning,” he says. “When people are evaluating whether to take your learning experience, they're likely asking themselves, is this worth my time?
It occurred to me that time is the real currency of learning. When people are evaluating whether to take your learning experience, they're likely asking themselves, is this worth my time?
So just like in a commercial setting, Gabe started structuring their offerings around price points, creating a customer funnel that consists of the following four categories:
That's Gabe’s customer funnel for structuring offerings to solve evergreen problems. But how do you validate and identify the evergreen problems that you need to solve?
When validating and identifying the actual problems to be solved, Gabe says it is an ongoing process with a couple of major milestones.
There are four pillars of evergreen problems that Gabe and Michelle chose to focus on during the process:
“And so, how did we arrive at those choices? For me, it started with talking with lots of people, particularly business leaders across the organization,” says Gabe. “And I'd ask, how's business? What are you working on for the next year? What's keeping you up at night?”
“I also do pre-mortems as well. I say to leaders, let's imagine that you're going to fail to achieve this thing. What's the biggest cause of failure? So, I'm digging into the frictions, the tensions, the gaps, and the risks that they're thinking about and taking copious notes.”
I'd ask leaders, how's business? What are you working on for the next year? What's keeping you up at night?
In Gabe’s experience, doing this with about 20 people across the organization, you will start to notice patterns across all those conversations. “And so, I just made a list and, started digging into each of those,” he says. “And then I try to prioritize those.”
Thanks to Gabe for sharing his lean and problem-driven L&D approach with us! Keen to learn from more L&D experts? Check out my conversation with Donald Clark about using AI models to transform the L&D function.
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